A&U’s Chael Needle Talks to Tracy L. Johnson, Jr., About HIV Outreach
Diagnosed with HIV on August 17, 2005, when he was a teen, Tracy L. Johnson, Jr., faced the first few years of living with HIV without a broad foundation of support. He had to struggle to build up his self-worth, especially after years of feeling devalued in special education classes. He had to set aside some of his dreams—like his passion for cooking, becoming the first singing chef on TV, and traveling the world. He had to drop out of high school, overwhelmed by his diagnosis and needing to work to help keep a roof over his head. He needed more “love, compassion, and support” from his mother he notes, but she was busy with a house full of kids and mulitple jobs.
What a difference a decade and a half makes!
Now he helps others know their self-worth as an HIV advocate and educator. He went back to school, graduating in 2010 from the Cleveland Job Corps with a high school diploma and medical assistant certification. He currently works at a bakery as a kitchen assistant and cooks for fun at home. He has a more solid relationship with his mother as well as his father. He is married and has four children, one son and three daughters.
He also makes good use of his spare time. Says Tracy: “I love entertaining with my wife and children, whether it’s dancing and singing at home or out in public sightseeing and traveling. I love to go out for karaoke to help ease my pain physically, mentally, and emotionally. I love volunteering at a local bakery called Chanelle’s Treatz in Shaker Square, Ohio. I also love volunteering at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities called Loc’s, an adult care facility in Cleveland Ohio.”
In 2011, he launched Voice by an Angel Outreach, Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio, in order to ensure that everyone who lives with or is affected by HIV/STI can lead a long and healthy life as empowered individuals. The organization also addresses other challenges people may face with navigating drugs/alcohol, homelessness, abuse, or sex work. It primarily focuses on youth.
Notes Tracy: “Every element of the mission statement are things that I’ve experienced, so I wanted to take people on a journey to let them know I am more than just HIV.”
As for the name of the organization, he shares: “My favorite TV show coming up as a kid was Touched by an Angel. I love the different stories and I love the miracles that happen in each scenario. I base my life off that show—I went through a lot of hell, but for every issue I’ve been through I learned a beautiful lesson that I utilize today in my outreach.”
Voice by an Angel is celebrating its tenth anniversary on December 12 with a formal-dress event that includes a resource fair, appetizers, cocktails, dinner and a ceremony. Check the organization’s Facebook page for details.
A&U had the chance to correpond with Tracy L. Johnson, Jr., recently.
Chael Needle: Why did you start Voice by an Angel Outreach?
Tracy L. Johnson, Jr.: When I was between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, I was the youngest person in the state of Ohio who was open about their HIV status. I did not see many young people like me for a while. I wanted [my status] to make a difference. I wanted people to know that it is okay to be young and living with a condition that most people don’t have as a teenager, unless they were born with it. I also know what I desired as a teenager, so I took all of those things that I missed as a teenager or what I did not tell anyone and I focused it in this outreach.
And what are some of your strategies when it comes to messaging and reaching out to young people?
Some of my strengths in reaching people is using my voice singing or using a powerful affirmation that caters to the mind, body, and soul….Often times I find myself going to a very deep intimate place to get on a personal level with doing this; it brings a message of diversity, compassion, and mutual respect.
Tell me about your family. Has living with HIV shaped your approach to parenting in any way?
My biological family is touch and go. However, when we do communicate, they do tend to be open-minded and willing to learn.
My wife and I reconnected with each other in 2014; I met her in 2009 when she was pregnant with her oldest child, who will be twelve in 2022 (when I plan to adopt him). My wife accepted me for my past and present and continually builds with me for my future. I explained to her when we connected that I identified as bisexual, I am HIV-positive, and I have been diagnosed since 2005. I asked her status and she told me that she was negative and to this day she is still negative. We never had a conversation about kids, but I did tell her that when I was diagnosed the doctor told me that it was possible that any child I may have or whomever I have sex with will become positive. In 2015 I was blessed to have my first biological child; she is HIV-negative. In 2017 I had my second biological child, who is HIV-negative and in 2020 I have my third biological child, who is HIV-negative. I say all of this to say that there is still a lot of hope and faith for everyone; it’s about being open and honest and letting your partner make the decision for themselves.
When did you first become aware of Undetectable = Untransmissable? How integral is this concept to your outreach?
In 2012 I was at a HRV conference in Washington, D.C., and I heard all of this commotion coming from one of the breakout rooms so I peeked my head in and I sat in the back and I started listening to the details. What I found funny is that I had heard of U=U because my doctor told me about it, but did not go into details—and I didn’t ask any questions at that time. So with my outreach I incorporate that by telling people: You are worth living. You have the power to change the outcome; use the tools that they have given you daily, which is the medication, so we can get to U=U. I say we because we are a team. It is my job with my outreach to help support everyone and figure out a method that works for them to maintain a healthy relationship and how to love themselves from the inside out.
Chael Needle writes the column Art & Understanding for A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.